There seemed to be a kind of resigned and general agreement amongst several experts at the PNG 2005 forum that the likelihood of ‘success’ for PNG becoming a stable modern nation-state was low.
Hugh White, in giving the concluding remarks, outlined what he saw as two phases of Australia’s attitude towards the experiment in PNG.
In the first 15 years from independence the working hypothesis which underwrote Australia’s policy aims was that ‘this thing could work’ – the thing in question being the creation of a modern nation-state in PNG after the removal of the colonial administration.
That is, with the withdrawal of the support of the Australian colonial administration there could emerge a separate, sovereign, stable and economically self-sustaining country of the sort found in countries like Australian and New Zealand.
But this way of looking at things requires that, in forming your idea of success, you are prepared to overlook the well-being of First Peoples in Australia and Maori in NZ/Aotearoa. If you are not prepared to do this, and you are aware that there is a clash between the indigenous and introduced cultures, then you may be less inclined to accept the suitability of the notion of a Western style state for people whose cultures are closer to those of Australia’s First Peoples and Maori than they are to those of Europe.
Hugh White outlined how for the next 15 years, from about 1989 to the present, the Australia attitude towards PNG changed to how to prevent things from getting worse.
Many of the speakers at the PNG 2005 forum gave a sense that things were “not working”.
This, in itself, raises the question “Should the experts and authorities be working – in a spirit of cultural partnership – on a contingency plan rather than continuing with to pursue a preconceived outcome?”
It is difficult, for an outsider such as myself, to overcome the dissonance between this pessimism of experts with the types of analysis from as recently as the report “Strengthening our Neighbour” published in December 2004 – with Hugh White as one of the authors.
In that report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the Executive Summary provides a clear statement about the view of things from an Australian perspective:
“In PNG, the weakness of the state – is in a large measure the result of the weakness of the nation – the community of people bound by some sense of shared identity and interest and commitment to their country. PNG is an abstraction that means very little to most Papua New Guineans, and it has little on which to base a claim for their loyalty. The state delivers to its people very few of the services which the foundation of national life…To make a real difference in PNG, we therefore need to find a policy approach that can help to get to grips with the underlying weakness of the state and nation in PNG…”
Those who privilege the notion of the modern nation-state so that it not only shapes but limits their ability to understand life typically move, in these circumstances, to talk about ‘failing states’ – which are, by the horror which attaches to them in the minds of statists – a fate far worse than death itself.
But we need to clearly understand that European modern nation-states emerged from their own long and bloody formative process in ways which we may not wish upon our friends. Nor is the fate of many everyday people within Western nation-states at all guaranteed to be as good as the promises (implicit and otherwise) which those who promote states make in order to retain support for this experimental life design.
There is a real sense of betrayal in the way working people – long driven off their own living countries in European life by ‘more efficient landlords’ – are now being treated in the name of reform of industrial relations. In the West we have come a long way from those earlier times when “Holy Days” were frequently enjoyed for the celebration of those other – and better – parts of our Being not subject to the money making schemes of others.
The more astute among people in PNG may notice that Western workers are characterised by a general depression matched by various forms of quietly desperate escapism. The mass singing of otherwise passive spectators at football matches in no way compares with the personal delights of village and intervillage sing-sings where eye to eye contact is possible between all actively involved.
My guess is that many people in PNG not only do not give their primary loyalty to the imagined community of the PNG state due to a lack of a suitable ‘narrative’ but do so due to the fact that a good part of their Being – a cultural unconscious long located at the gut level – warns them that the fate which accepting the state has in store for them is not as good as that which they can presently enjoy in village life.
A recent ABC television program with The Chief – Sir Michael Somare – explored the extent to which modern notions of progress of the kind expected in 1975 have been largely rejected by PNG people in preference for village life. He himself had returned to his home village to pay respects to Elders and to make good the damage done by his sons.
This type of respect is largely lacking in the West. There are many local communities in Australia, and elsewhere in Western countries, which are suffering from the lack of control over what happens (and does not happen) in their lives at the local level. Distant decision-makers – infected with an unearthed corporate culture view of the future – work in ‘unconscious alliances’ with developers with slash and burn profit making schemes.
“Nation building” exercises in the Pacific are an attempt to refashion life to comply with European specifications. They are accompanied by a view, amongst some Western decision makers and their indigenous allies, that when life demonstrates that it has a kind of will of its own, and resulting outcomes do not comply with monoculturally preconceived expectations, is evidence of a ‘failing state’.
An open mind can equally examine the alternative view that, on this side of the planet, the ‘state’ itself is a failed model. While it may be appropriate in other places, it is not appropriate in places where there are indigenous peoples whose lives continue to live according to their own Ways.
The appropriateness of the concept of a nation-state as providing the only solution ot the complex mix of factors which make up life in the 21st century appears to be a foregone conclusion by many of the decision makers who are already empowered by this arrangements in other places, such as Australia.
This type of analysis – the ‘failing state’ view – has lead the present Australian government to adopt a ‘hands on’ approach in some part of the Pacific, with operation RAMSI in the Solomon Islands. For this approach to have a chance of working, it will require decades and over a billion Australian dollars.
The Enhanced Cooperation Program in PNG was further evidence of the ‘hands on’ approach, but it has become a “heavy hands on” exercise due to the attempts of Australia to follow the United States lead to ensure immunity for its personnel when they are ‘sent in’ to prop up Western arrangements in other countries.
It is immediately and abundantly clear to anyone who has visited PNG recently that a key part of the ‘law and order’ situation is to provide PNG police with the resources and conditions they need to carry out their duties.
In light of recent criticism of police methods in PNG, it may be that the chronic lack of resources, combined with the heavy weight of expectations that they should be able to maintain law and order, compels police to adopt harsh practices (equally, the reasons for this may lie elsewhere).
Given the finely tuned PNG sensitivities about equivalence in social relations, it is ridiculous to send Australian personnel on high pay without providing for the fundamentals as seen from the viewpoint of working police who understand the local areas.
I have seen the same kind of dismissive attitude by Australian bureaucrats towards to local indigenous people in Central Australia in regard to treating key research colleagues as no more than drivers, who should be dismissed if they lost their drivers licence.
The spirit of cultural partnership works in a very different way. It places a real value on the role of all those skills and talents which may not be recognised by Western standards.
Fashioning a way of life is a creative process. The facts of life are that any creative process requires making decisions about what will be sacrificed in order to produce the desired outcome.
The carvings I saw in PNG – for which trees had been sacrificed – tell wonderful stories about life. The story boards from the Sepik were saturated with myth-narratives. A single board hewn from the buttress roots of a tree had been used for what was now decoration in a Madang motel. Densely rich with stories, it provided a fractal image of a much fuller corpus of stories making up a cosmology. I had my doubts about sacrificing the buttress roots of tree but there could be no doubt about this being a far superior use – without question – than the reduction of forests to provide toilet paper.
Another caring of a single figure in the foyer of another Madang motel made a brilliant statement about transformation and was amply evidence of the creative talents of the master carver who produced it. How I kicked myself later for not spending my remaining Kina on buying it so I could show it to others back in Australia.
A QUESTION OF SACRIFICE
A critical view of the modern nation-state has to include in its analysis the role of exclusive ownership of land and property, and the role of governments in enabling the truly wealthy of the world by sacrificing the well-being of those who are marginalised by these arrangements.
The Westminster system has always required the ruthless exploitation of the lands and lives of other peoples in order to deliver sufficient payments, by way of patronage, to enough of its followers to ensure it retains the critical mass necessary for its operation. The exploitation of the lands of indigenous people in the New World, Australia and the Pacific to redistribute their wealth clearly demonstrates how this system of patronage works.
It relies on NOT paying indigenous peoples a proper price for their wealth in order to have the resources necessary to prop up things in other parts of the ‘home’ countries of imperial colonial powers.
Within a context which took for granted the superior model provided by the modern nation-state there was mention at the forum of the need to build demand for ‘reform’ within PNG and to identify and support ‘reform champions’ in PNG. That is, a direct means of interference in the lives of PNG people in order to reshape PNG life in order for it to better comply with Australian specifications.
By way of providing the contrast necessary to throw a critical light on statements of this kind, how would we react to someone who said there is a need for a Marxist revolution in PNG to overthrow the imposed Western state model and we need to identify and support PNG revolutionaries at the grassroots level?
While talk of ‘reform’ is gentler it is similar in that it advocates outside interference directed at changing life within PNG in order to comply with a European master narrative which originates from elsewhere, and which has no real understanding of the lives of the people it seeks to ‘improve’.
Neither approach is correct. The issue is not how to foster reform in PNG but, within a context of recognising both their proven ability to govern affairs for thousand of years before Europeans appeared on the scene – and to make a masterly job out of taking over the mess made when the colonial power of Australia pulled out without making the necessary arrangements for ensuring a high degree of balance for the lives the people they had formerly presumed to control – to find out what people in PNG regard as their priorities – and to accept that their priorities will be shaped by concerns which may not strike Australians (operating with an entirely different set of values) as the most important.
What is most important on the people to people level, in this situation, is developing a relationship of cultural partnership. One major barrier to this is inability of Anglo-Australians to adapt and to open up within their culture and lives places for the cultural values, cosmologies and Ways of indigenous peoples in Australia, PNG and the Pacific.
“TOWARDS A PACIFIC COMMUNITY”
A quick read of the recently released Australian Labor Party discussion paper “Towards a Pacific Community” shows that, while it talks of partnership, there is little evidence of it the document itself.
There is a preconceived outcome and an emphasis on the need for people in the Pacific to ‘reform’ to comply with a technocratic vision of the future complete with flow-chart style diagrams of how a Pacific Community should be organised.
This represents one-side of the brain only. The creative side is absent. While everything makes perfect sense in an office in Canberra, reality is comprised of the ways of life of people in many different places across New Guinea and the Pacific.
There is no real though given in this discussion paper on the necessity of cultural reform for those who embrace the Anglo-Australian norms. All reform will be done by others to comply with superior Australian norms.
There is no evidence that the authors of the paper have any knowledge of the Ways of Australia’s First Peoples, and no thought given to their role in a future “Pacific Community’. The former Senator Aden Ridgeway called this “terra nullius of the mind”.
The presence of ‘terra nullius of the mind’ in this discussion paper should serve to alert all those people who have a culture different from that introduced from Great Britain to exercise extreme caution before they accept or endorse the Westernisation scheme which is laid out so logically before them. The logic excludes non-Western values, cultures and cosmologies.
The paper makes a fetish out of culture. It is as though, rather than embracing the changes which come with accepting true culture partnership, it seeks to convert living culture into inert objects as artefacts in a grand and touring museum.
Culture is a living thing in which ‘objects’ acquire their significance as part of the social processes at work in people’s relationships. If these processes are not founded on notions of balanced and reciprocal exchange of things of real value, there is little point in museum displays (in cyberspace or elsewhere).
The paper seeks to promote Western forms of competitive ritual (“sport”) with no sign of awareness of how Western life would be greatly enriched by having people in Australian embrace Pacific rituals – including those of Trobriand cricket which completely knocks the socks of Packer’s reforms to that game.
Just as Aussie rules is thought to owe something to indigenous Australian games, there are whole new creative area for people to people interactions waiting to come in Being as a result of embracing cultures indigenous to New Guinea and the Pacific. We just need to learn to let go of the hold over our lives of dominating western scripts, and lighten up a little.
There is always some good elements in these discussion papers and some major and important issues to be carefully considered and acted upon. But the ALP would do well to reject the approach which lays down the outcomes in advance and, instead, engage in discussions which genuinely provide spaces for the voices of cultural partners in shaping the agenda, aims and objectives.
The risk for any flying tour (in the name of community consultation) of the Pacific is that Western politicians will only get to meet those people who have already opted for Westernisation. It is relatively easy to engage with people who see modernity as the only way forward. It is far more difficult to reach those who – for very real and important reasons – have not. They may be the culture carriers for that part of Being which – so often – has to be sacrificed as part of the admission price required to entry the Western Club.
People should not be deceived when this is called “The Pacific Club” if the club rules are those which stem entirely from the Westminster system (or, as updated, those of the European Union).
What is required to restore balance to life in Australia, New Guinea and the Pacific are coexisting and respected rules of conduct which originate in this part of the planet.
INSTITUTIONAL RACISM IN AUSTRALIA
Institutionalised racism is buried deep in Anglo-Australian practices at al levels. The 1901 Constitution, the Territory, State and Federal Parliaments, the system of law, the education system, the media, commercial (business) practices and popular culture are all formed on a premise of denial of the place of Australia’s First Peoples in Australian life. All of the forms of representation which are generated by the present Anglo-Australian life-formation suffer from this major defect.
It is no surprise that British backpackers enjoying the play of privileged tour (and all those who pose no challenge to the dominance of Anglo-Australian norms) are encouraged to take part in seasonal work in Australia long before serious consideration is given to making the same opportunities available for people in PNG and the Pacific for whom such work would represent a significant contribution to their life experience and incomes.
However, the movement away from institutionalised racism is underway both at the official and, as a peoples movement for reconciliation clearly shows, at the unofficial level of life in Australia.
The Senate report – recommendation 10 states:
“The Committee recommends the Australian Government support Australian industry groups, State governments, unions, Non-Government Organisations and regional governments to develop a pilot program to allow for labour to be sourced from the region for seasonal work.”
People from PNG come from cultures which are among the earliest known horticulturalists. Their vegetable gardens are a pure delight to behold. I was also often struck by their flower gardens as I moved around PNG. In addition to seasonal work of the normal kind (e.g. fruit picking) there may be some opportunities for local councils to engage ‘seasonal’ workers as part of their outside workforce to provide work experience as part of a wider cultural exchange ‘package’.
Some people-to-people support could work here as well. Given the difficulties for many people in PNG to raise the cost of airfares necessary for travel and living in Australia, a degree of sponsoring of groups of seasonal worker could be encouraged as part of the “adopt a village” scheme. Local Reconciliation Groups might provide a means of doing this?
Forming such relationships could contribute to some local healing in this country, and improve the level of awareness in Australia – at the grassroots level – about life in PNG.
This major ‘domestic’ flaw of institutionalises racism – which leads to what formed Senator Aden Ridgeway called ‘terra nullius of the mind’ – cannot help but taint Australian foreign policy.
The Howard government and the present culture within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet – as evidence by is treatment of Australia’s First Peoples – can be characterised by a very high degree of institutionalised racism.
What is required in order to get the relationship between Australian and PNG and the Pacific on a better footing is ‘reform’ of the modern Australian state. Australian politicians and experts need to come down from their high horse and find ways of drawing level with all indigenous peoples on this side of the planet.
There was discussion at the forum of which put the ECP in the past tense. The weight attached to the recent collapse of the ECP in PNG – over the unconstitutionality of immunity for Australia police – seems to represent a “final straw”. Ironically, for all the talk about Australia wanting to encourage the use of devices like a constitution and getting the state institutions accepted by everyday PNG people, it was acting in a way which totally undermines the reality of the PNG constitution.
A far more enlightened approach – for those who seek to reinforce the power of such written documents in the nation building exercise – would have been to match their aid policies with the existing PNG constitution by accepting the lack of special immunity for Australian police and getting on with the job rather than spitting the dummy and withdrawing to Australia like a petulant child at the first hurdle.
The recent announcement (August) is that Australia would be sending 30 non-front line police mentors to PNG and not front line police.
And yet there was no consideration given for making a timely contingency plan premised on the collapse of the experiment. Rather, the pretence that the model provided by the modern nation-state was the only outcome took conceptual precedence over consideration of a wider range of scenarios which are also conceivable from the same ‘facts’.
Given that the consequences of such an event for everyday people’s lives could be major, the expression of “hope for the best and plan for the worst” is appropriate.
The hope at the PNG 2005 forum was that the present government would remain stable for the rest of its term (until 2007). The reasons that this government will not go the way of previous governments may mean, however, that the pressures which have previously been released (and which appear to Western eyes as ‘instability’) may find another outlet.
That is, instead of allowing for pressure to be vented in a relatively harmless way, the failure to remove the sources of that pressure and the attempt to merely put a lid on it, may result in a ‘blow-out’ elsewhere – with unpredictable consequences.
PEOPLE TO PEOPLE CONTINGENCY PLAN
The conclusion I reached after my trip to PNG in 2004 was that timely consideration needs to be given for providing assistance to people so they will be able to make the most of their lives as the PNG government “fails”.
“There was a life, of sorts, amongst the ruins …” and it is this life which we need to direct our limited resources towards assisting. The Deluge story is found worldwide including PNG (see, for example, Burrudge “Tangu Traditions”) – and this story demonstrates an awareness of a profound and sobering truth – not all people survive major catastrophes.
While the task of picking ‘winners’ is something of a futile exercise, and in the absence of a god who directly intervenes in personal lives, the general task of helping those who are presently striving to help themselves provides one means of locating people.
The scheme I would like to see promoted is a wide ranging process by which people in towns and villages in PNG can be matched up with “exchange partners” in many parts of Australia.
In addition to church, cultural (arts), sports and work exchange visits, the addition of contact between members of local reconciliation groups in Australia and appropriate cultural partners may provide a small difference which makes a difference.
PNG BACKPACKERS TO AUSTRALIA?
We, in Australia, should considering finding ways of pooling some of our resources in order to be able to assist people from PNG to come to Australia as “Backpackers”.
This would need pooling some money in order to help some friends from PNG to purchase the necessary documents – passports, visa applications – internal flight tickets in PNG – retrun flight to Australia from Port Moresby and evidence of accommondation and funds to support themselves while in Australia in order to satisfy the relevant authorities. Even for an Australian on a reasonable wage, this is a solid amount of money. For many people in PNG there is no way which such money can be accumulated.
But it could – and should – be done as it will make a small but important difference.
Of course, the same amount of money could be sent to a community in PNG for other purposes, and that is most worthwhile as well. Both could be considered.